You may have heard colleagues, friends or students talking lately about using Twitter. Perhaps you caught Paul Reynolds discussing it on breakfast television last week or maybe you're already Tweeting yourself. But just in case you aren't aware of it Twitter could be likened to Instant-messaging for the web. It's a service that supports small plain-text posts to a personal channel that you can make publicly available or if you prefer only accessible to those you authorise. The content of tweets varies from the trivial to the profound, some personal some public, some original, some re-tweeted or inspired, a simple stream of thoughts, opinions or obeservations from a single person.
So what's new about that? Doesn't seem that ground-breaking at first glance. And that's a common reaction especially from those like myself who never really got the whole instant messaging thing. Instant messaging is generally performed on the desktop and while that's a popular way to post to the service, one of the fundamental things that sets Twitter apart is that it was also designed to be posted to using SMS text messages from mobile phones while you're out and about. Thus the small 140 character limit on each post.
Another of the special things about micro-blogging tools like Twitter is that by default your posts (aka Tweets) are public. You can subscribe to or follow the posts of others whose entries may interest, shock or amaze you. The list of people you follow is also public by default so others can see who you follow, they can check them out and if interested they might follow them. As well as people you're following you also have a list of followers, and once again that list is public, so others can check out your followers and so on and so on.
This all sounds terrifyingly open and chaotic but the magic of Twitter really is this serendipitous discovery of content and conversations you're interested in and the ease of being able to create and extend an adhoc many-to-many network of people with like interests. You may start off slowly but eventually you'll be following hundreds of others, and being the witty, clever and interesting character you surely are you will soon have a like number of followers yourself. If at some point you tire of a particular Tweeter you just unsubscribe from their feed. The power to establish or alter you network is in your hands.
Apart from person-person Tweeting another common practice in the Twitterverse is establishment of corporate channels, feeds of posts from businesses, organisations, websites, sports team or communities, you name it. It's easy to imagine how a tool like this could be used in a teaching environment. Teachers could be posting about their plans for course activities, content or topics, resources of relevance to a paper, discussions at conferences they're attending, ideas about research activities, or maybe to let students know when their assignments are ready to be collected. Students could be Tweeting about projects, group activities, links or references of note for assignments.
Another fantastic opportunity that's beginning to gain traction is posting to Twitter from automated processes or mechanisms using the programmable interface, or API. Imagine you own a data set of information that periodically produces reports, you could send a Twitter post each time the reports where made available. You might auto-tweet at the end of a running experiment to post its results. A library could post abstracts from newly arrived books or publications. An airline could post arrivals of flights at an airport. A restaurant could post changes to a menu or bookings made available or cancelled. With Elections coming up it would be great to post the results of each seat as they come in to Twitter. You get the idea I'm sure, all it takes is a micro publishing idea or need and someone with a little web development experience to set up the automation.
The WCEL team setup a twitter channel @wcel which we used at a recent conference in Auckland and all of our team subsequently used it to Tweet at Moodlemoot in Napier a fortnight ago. Others at the conference were posting to their own channels and all of us subscribing to each other. It was a great way to keep tabs on what was going on in other parallel tracks, and to feed or prompt others to think about or query things on our behalf if we weren't able to make a session. A neat outcome from this was at one point having incoming followers from another conference uLearn, we followed them and the conversation was suddenly happening across two concurrent conferences in different parts of the world.
Twitter isn't the only tool on the micro-blogging block (see Plurk or Yammer) but it's currently the most popular. Go on, dive in, sign up for a free micro-blogging account and get started. If you'd like to read more about the history and comparisons between tools like these you cant go wrong with a site like ReadWriteWeb who have covered them in some detail. We've been using tools like Twitter for some time in our team so by all means contact us if you'd like to know more. And feel free to post any comments here about how you are using microblogging in your environment.